I understand why Sarah Palin has a problem with "Game Change" (9 p.m. Saturday, HBO). I wouldn't want a movie made of my life either (and not just because it would be dull and some film exec would look at my hair and say, "Let's get Whoopi Goldberg!"). Who wants their life interpreted through someone else's eyes?
Of course, her protests have drawn more attention to the film. And you know, I think that might work to her advantage. Palin doesn't come across as a saint or a genius, but the film does give a sense of the enormity of what she experienced. It shows how difficult it might have been for anyone. It show how anyone could have been overwhelmed, how anyone could have misunderstood the rules of the political game, how anyone could lose themselves. What I'm saying is even Palin haters might feel sympathy for and/or empathize with Sarah Palin after watching "Game Change."
If you don't know, the film is based on the book of the same name, which covered the 2008 presidential election, including then-candidate Barack Obama, our own former NC senator John Edwards and then-wife Elizabeth, and the Clintons. The movie narrows the focus, honing in on the McCain campaign, and Palin's entry, in particular. (The real Edwards makes a brief appearance in the film via a Youtube video. And yes, he's being laughed at.) It's told through the eyes of Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson), a McCain strategist.
The action begins with Obama's win over Clinton; McCain (Ed Harris) is wowed by the exemplary speechmaking of Obama (the real one, shown in news footage); his campaign staff knows McCain is going to need a 'game changer' to regain momentum. They figure out through research that they need a woman, and after investigation, national campaign manager Rick Davis (Peter MacNicol) sets his sights on Palin.
There's only four days to vet her, and over the reservations of speechwriter Mark Salter (Jamey Sheridan), Palin becomes the pick.
As embodied by Julianne Moore, Palin comes across, at first, as wide-eyed, earnest and plucky. She really wants to help McCain. But it's pretty clear she doesn't get the scope of what's about to happen to her; that the skills it took to take her from PTA mom to Alaska governor aren't enough in the national, or really, international, arena. When Schmidt tries to tell her it will be tough, she invokes her tough election in Alaska. She soon discovers that experience was bush league.
Moore, I think, does a great job of adding dimension through her performance where there is none. The script doesn't offer insight on what makes Palin tick. We don't really get to know her. The truth is, even if Palin had worked with the filmmakers, we wouldn't get that insight. At this point, Palin is as much brand as person; revelations are a commodity.
But Moore's acting skills, her sense of Palin's humanity allows us to feel what Palin must surely have been feeling in the context of what's presented in this telling. The humiliation of Tina Fey's wildly popular impression of her as dim. The deeper humiliation of the Katie Couric interview. The exhilaration of speaking before adoring crowds.
What's stunning, if this is all true, is Palin's ignorance. Let's just say the Alaska school system should not use this film as a marketing tool. But even here Moore's Palin wins the viewer over by her willingness and enthusiasm to learn. At least at first.
The rest of the cast is pretty great too. I especially enjoyed Sarah Paulson as senior advisor Nicolle Wallace. And the film is a bit of image rehab for McCain. Choosing Palin, while certainly a political calculation, doesn't seem as cynical in this film. And McCain's kindness toward Palin explains why, despite all the mess that came out from his staff, the two still share a bond.
While Palin supporters might think she gets an unfair portrayal in "Game Change," the arc of the film really shows any political novice's coming of age. In "Game Change," Palin enters the scene ill-equipped for what's in store. She ends the journey wiser, stronger and with a solid sense of what she brings to the table. Even if you don't like her offerings, "Game Change" might make you grudgingly respect her.